As she walked off Branch McCracken Court for the final time in her storied career, Grace Berger stopped in front of her bench where her teammates stood, stunned. She joined them in shock, hanging her head low and putting her hands on her knees, just staring at the hardwood. Berger stayed frozen there as No. 9 seed Miami paraded around the floor, celebrating its Sweet 16-securing victory over No. 1 seed Indiana women’s basketball 70-68 on Monday in Bloomington.
The moment was the direct opposite of just two hours prior when, in nearly the exact same spot, the graduate guard had been introduced to the Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall for the last time in her career. The 14,480 fans in attendance for No. 1 seed Indiana’s second round NCAA Tournament game — a sight which would have been nearly unimaginable when Berger joined the program in 2018 — showered her with cheers as her name was announced.
Despite the anticipation of her final game in Bloomington, Berger was all business once the ball was tipped. She moved through the midrange and continuously made just enough space to get off a clean shot while feeding her cutting teammates for open looks and making life miserable for whomever she was guarding on the other end.
Even early on, Berger’s play wasn’t enough. The Hurricanes fed the ball down low to senior forward Lola Pendande, who bullied senior forward Mackenzie Holmes — herself still dealing with knee soreness that held her out of Saturday’s 77-47 first round win over No. 16 seed Tennessee Tech University. Pendande dominated the paint and scored 8 of her 19 points in the opening quarter to help the Canes take control early.
While Berger kept working to set her teammates up, their shots continued bouncing out, and outside of Berger herself, Indiana shot below 30% in the first half and entered the break trailing by 12 points.
Coming out of halftime, Berger again took over, starting with a rare 3-pointer followed by a signature midrange jumper — which Miami head coach Katie Meier compared to NBA Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki’s — to cut the lead to 6 points. She also found Holmes time after time open inside on pick and rolls for easy buckets, and by the fourth quarter, had finally helped Indiana tie the game back up with just under four minutes remaining.
However, another 5-0 run by Miami required more heroics from the veteran leader, who knocked down a pair of free throws, then found freshman guard Yarden Garzon in the corner for an open 3-pointer to tie it again.
Three more Miami free throws were followed yet again by a Garzon triple, this time coming off a step back jumper, to tie the game yet again with just 6.6 seconds remaining and force a Miami timeout.
Out of the timeout, the Canes inbounded the ball to their own veteran wing, graduate forward Destiny Harden, who was marked by Berger. Harden caught the ball, pump faked to get Berger off balance, stepped through and rose up for the mid-range jumper — the very move Berger has perfected and made her own over her time in Bloomington.
Harden’s basket over Berger was good, and Indiana was unable to get a shot off before the buzzer sounded, ending any hope the team had of reaching its goal of a Final Four appearance and NCAA Championship.
After the game, once Berger had finished making her way off the court, she sat at her locker with a towel over her head. As junior guard Sydney Parrish answered questions at the next locker over, trying not to get choked up as she praised Berger’s leadership and status as a program legend, Berger herself stayed motionless in her chair.
“She's a big reason why I came here. She makes everyone around her better, and she's a big reason why a lot of girls want to come here and play basketball,” Parrish said. “Because Grace makes this program run. Everything goes through Grace, and she's going to be one of the best to ever come through Indiana women's basketball, and it's just not going to be the same without her. We’re going to miss her.”
Holmes and head coach Teri Moren echoed Parrish’s sentiments, praising Berger as a program legend who was instrumental in building Indiana women’s basketball into the Big Ten-winning powerhouse it is currently.
“She's helped build this program. We're not sitting here where we are today — we weren't sitting here a year ago, probably three years ago — without Grace Berger on this roster,” Moren said. “I’m just so grateful that she decided to become an Indiana Hoosier five years ago when she had a lot of different options. She chose us.”
Once Berger did speak, she didn’t focus on her accomplishments as a player who became Indiana’s first ever four-time All-Big Ten First Team honoree or even how she helped establish Indiana as a genuine national contender, but instead talked about the program and the people and how much it all meant to her.
“I knew it was eventually going to come to an end, it was inevitable,” Berger said. “But, I loved being a Hoosier, every single second of it. It was the best decision I've ever made and coach (Teri) Moren is someone that is going to impact me far more than just my five years here. I love this program. I love this university. I love my coaches. I love my teammates. And, you know, it's sad that it's ending but I'm just very grateful that it happened.”
With the loss, Berger’s career and Indiana’s season come to a screeching halt before anyone outside of Miami-Dade County expected it to end. Berger is a potential first round pick in next month’s WNBA Draft and her career as a basketball player is far from over, but her legacy in Bloomington is now set in stone forever as one of the legends of Indiana basketball.